Mel Gibson vs. Kenneth Branaugh as Hamlet

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Mel Gibson vs. Kenneth Branaugh as Hamlet

First in an installment looking at the modern film versions of Shakespeare's plays

by Lynn Davison Jr., Contributing Writer

The recent "box office rebirth" of England's favorite bard has left Hollywood with much to do about interpreting Shakespeare's classic dramas. The characters of Ophelia, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, the gravedigger, and of course Hamlet himself take new life, as the greatest actors of our time assume these timeless roles.

Produced in 1990, Mel Gibson's "Hamlet" is a more straightforward, highly edited version of the original text in comparison to Kenneth Brannagh's lavish rendition of the same tale. At only 135 minutes, Gibson's "Hamlet" might be considered "Shakespeare Light," the cinematic equivalent of Cliff's Notes. However, although Brannagh should be commended for sticking to the text, be forewarned about this "Hamlet"-by including every line of the original play, this movie clocks in at exactly 242 minutes.

The setting chosen for Brannagh's and Gibson's "Elsinore Castle" are as different as day and night, quite literally. And these bright and dark castle settings symbolically reinforce the specific "mood" or themes each director emphasizes.

For instance, the lugubrious Gibson feels perfectly at home in his dark and dank mansion, an ideal place for a grieving soul to maintain its ruefull descent. Conversely, the introspective Brannagh is continuously catching glimpses of himself and others (and into their true souls) in the mirror-lined ballrooms of his glistening castle.

Since Hamlet is, in its essence, truly a ghost story (so apropos for Halloween week!), each director has handled these "special effects" quite differently. Gibson gives a more stage-like handling of the ghost of Hamlet's father, using only lighting to cast an eerie glow or flickering shadows on its actors. Brannagh, on the other hand, seeks to use every filmmaker's...